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‘Dust of the Caravan’ review: A keen sense of history and a critique of pre-1947 India

Literary Review

Literary Review

Translations, especially from Urdu to English, can be interesting resources in understanding how history and memory have been ‘produced’ for nation-building.

Dust of the Caravan is a translation of unfinished personal memoirs of Anis Kidwai by her granddaughter Ayesha Kidwai. It also includes extracts from previously published Partition memoirs of Anis Kidwai, also translated by Ayesha, two additional essays — character sketches of Saifuddin Kitchlew and Mridula Sarabhai — and a fictional feminist utopian piece titled ‘The Search for a Wife’.

I first read Anis Kidwai’s Nazr-e-Khush Guzre , which has several delightful essays including literary criticism and character sketches of political figures.

In its preface, Anis mentions reading an article titled “Biwi kaisi honi chahiye” (desirable qualities in a wife), by her father published in Malumaat magazine. In response, Anis wrote “Shauharon ki qismein” (A typology of husbands).

Anis mentions that the magazine stopped publication in 1918 and her retort was published 13 years after the article that provoked her when Malumaat resumed publication in 1931.

Versatile writer

From her translated and untranslated writings, Anis Kidwai clearly comes through as a versatile and prolific writer who possessed a keen sense of history and a sharp social critique.

Women’s writing is understood as an important cultural manifestation of their agency but not too well discussed in public discourse. Overly metaphorical fiction writing by Muslim women has received more attention because of their stereotype as suppressed by Islam and Muslim men. Even within autobiographies, only 'rebellion' which fits into the prevalent western liberal feminist framing is credited with agency. Little wonder then that only those writers who have written on ‘forbidden’ or ‘taboo’ subjects have managed to remain in memory as ‘Muslim women writers’, while others slipped into oblivion.

Further, owing to feminist interest in recovery of forgotten histories, autobiographical writings by Muslim women are now being translated but other non-fiction forms such as essays are still neglected. Dust of the Caravan thus signifies some continuity but also some breaks.

Busting myths

In the book, Anis dispels the account that she and other Muslim women of the time could get educated only secretly. In the process she provides insights into how Muslim cultural elite women acquired knowledge, and how they and Anis carved a space for their distinctive mode of thinking within an otherwise restrictive culture. It shows that the gendered segregation of spaces in elite Muslim families was not entirely unbreached. While the early chapters echo familiar descriptions of Muslim elite households in north India, what is fascinating is Anis’s description of the everydayness of nationalist politics in her family. She records her own impressions of political events and how she eagerly followed the news. By recounting her yearning to be political and her personal struggles to join in, Anis shows that the resources for negotiating autonomy came not only from rebellion against gendered discrimination, or from anti-colonial struggle, but also from vagaries of life such as dwindling wealth and death.

Time in Parliament

As with all unfinished memoirs, Dust of the Caravan leaves the reader with a longing for what remains unwritten. I particularly imagined how valuable the account of her time in Parliament as a Rajya Sabha MP would have been.

Reading Dust of the Caravan I was reminded of Qurratulain Hyder translating her own work Aag Ka Darya . She wrote it in Urdu in Pakistan, and translated or rather transcreated it into English as River of Fire after she came back to India. If we see what she omits, what she retains, and how she translates, it is like reading Qurratulain Hyder’s notion of the two nations. Through translation, Hyder was in essence interacting with readers of two distinct national communities. Anis Kidwai’s work too could be read as a text traversing the multiple nations that India has been and is becoming across space and time.

Dust of the Caravan; Anis Kidwai, Translated and edited by Ayesha Kidwai, Zubaan, ₹595.

The reviewer teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University.


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Printable version | May 22, 2022 12:58:45 am | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/dust-of-the-caravan-review-a-keen-sense-of-history-and-a-critique-of-pre-1947-india/article38273574.ece